Information key to addressing corruption

Truly free information can curtail corruption (image c/o _cheryl on Flickr).

Transparency International UK (TI) recently announced the results of the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) with New Zealand coming top and, unsurprisingly, North Korea and Somalia bottom.  As for the UK, whilst it has fared better than France, Spain and the USA, it still sits outside the top 10 in sixteenth place.

According to TI:

The CPI ranks countries/territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. It is a composite index, a combination of polls, drawing on corruption-related data collected by a variety of reputable institutions. The CPI reflects the views of observers from around the world, including experts living and working in the countries/territories evaluated.

Given this methodology it is not hard to see why the UK continues to receive such a disappointing ranking.  The revelations in terms of MP expenses and the ongoing phone hacking scandal have done much to encourage a perception that public officials, civil servants and politicians are corrupt (the definition of ‘corruption’ applied by TI is ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’).  And even on a smaller scale, at local level, it’s not difficult to see how this perception continues to hold sway with pockets of the UK population.  It would not be surprising, for example, for the people of Gloucestershire and Doncaster to perceive a degree of corruption in the way their local authorities have handled library closures.

In terms of the UK, the figures are particularly disappointing given the commitment the coalition has made to transparency.  Chandu Krishnan, Executive Director of TI, explains:

 “Given the Government’s promise to commit to transparency, the UK should have progressed enough to be achieving a top five ranking.  However, practices that have been taken for granted for many years are still awaiting change, such as the willingness of politicians to accept corporate and media hospitality and ‘revolving door’ employment between major media companies, political offices and the police.”

Furthermore, TI suggests two ‘imperative’ changes need to be made:

1. Clean up politics – Recent scandals involving the movement of individuals between government and the private sector – such as the cases of Geoff Hoon and Andy Coulson – have highlighted the corruption vulnerabilities left open by the current system. Political party funding also needs reform, as recently highlighted by the Kelly report.

2. Adequately acknowledge UK corruption problem – There is no individual or institution with the remit to coordinate a robust response to corruption in the UK – although ironically the government has an ‘overseas anti-corruption champion’.  This remit must be extended to cover domestic corruption.

There is no doubt that there is a serious lack of transparency in the UK, despite the introduction of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act.  In fact, it would be fair to argue that such legislation has not really gone far enough.  There is still a substantial amount of information that is not obtainable through FoI and the appeals process is far too long and impractical.  Even now, after promises of transparency from the coalition, it is often necessary to commit a great deal of time and effort to obtaining information about even the most basic actions of the government and elected officials.

But what of those that lead the way in terms of low perceptions of corruption?  According to the CPI, New Zealand, Denmark, Finland and Sweden have consistently ranked highest in the CPI and are perceived as the least corrupt nations.  Marie Chêne, Senior Research Coordinator at Transparency International, notes a number of reasons for this:

Beside law enforcement, there is a broad consensus that fighting corruption involves public participation and transparency mechanisms such as disclosure of information.

Preliminary findings from upcoming country studies for Finland, Denmark and Sweden indicate that this “integrity system” function relatively well in these countries.

Recent studies show that freedom of the press is positively correlated with control of corruption in well established democracies. Finland, Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand all have high GDP per capita, low inequality rates, literacy rates close to 100 %, and prioritise human right issues (e.g. gender equality, freedom of information).

Crucially, they all perform well in terms of government openness and effectiveness.

There needs to be greater co-operation between the state and the people (image c/o watchsmart on Flickr).

Chêne also points out that these countries also enable greater citizen participation in the business of government (including assessing how government manages public funds), codes of conduct for public servants and a legal framework for criminalising a range of corruption related abuses.

Whilst it is fair to say that the UK’s standing isn’t exactly disastrous, it could be so much better and with this coalition’s supposed commitment to transparency it should be easy to address the concerns raised by Transparency International.  The key to addressing these concerns is public involvement.  Inform the populace to a greater degree on how government operates, create an environment of transparency that prevents corporate lobbying from being hidden from the public and deal robustly with any corruption conducted by politicians and civil servants.

As is so often the case, information is utterly key.  We need a free press that holds government to account for its actions rather than, as is so often the case, acting as its mouthpiece.  We need true freedom of information across the board rather than enduring lengthy appeals processes for information that gets to the heart of government business.  Without information the guilty cannot be held to account for their actions.  Create a truly transparent society where the government and the governed work in tandem and the perceptions of corruption will diminish.  Such a society, however, is unlikely for as long as politicians believe that as the perception of corruption diminishes, so will their power and influence.

For the full results of the 2011 CPI, see the interactive visualisation below (scores are based on a maximum of 10):

Ian Clark

A qualified librarian and co-founder of a leading national library advocacy campaign, I have written articles for The Guardian and the Open Rights Group on a range of professional issues.

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